by Max Barry

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Geography and Environment

The official border of the Free Republic is the old treaty line of 60 degrees south. Inside this circle, there are several outlying islands, followed by the Free Republic's heartland: the Antarctic continent. For 34 million years, its true face was invisible to all, wholly buried under miles of ice. Then, one thousand years ago, that began to change. Human technology began to release ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the earth's atmosphere. Within a few hundred years, the portion of the continent known as "West Antarctica" had melted, and the rest followed suit after a few hundred more. The true face of the Antarctic continent was revealed, showing itself to be vast, intricate, and beautiful in equal measure.

Geographically, the Antarctic continent is often differentiated into two halves. One is smaller, lower, and more fragmented. Despite the fact that Antarctica encompasses the South Pole, and therefore all directions are relative, this area is still known as West Antarctica. It encompasses the area between the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula on one end and the cities of Union and Hondo on the other. It was the first half of the continent to melt during the climate shift, and thus it is more densely populated, being home to a full half of Antarctica's population despite taking up about a third of the continent's area. Due to West Antarctica's geography, the entire area (besides the fragmented Transantarctic Mountains) has a humid and relatively mild climate. Summer temperatures are usually between 60 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and winter temperatures hover between 20 and 30 degrees. Its abundant precipitation means that the entire area, excepting the mountains, is covered in lush and verdant forests.

The other half of the continent is larger, higher, and drier, and is known as East Antarctica. It makes up about two thirds of Antarctica's area, though it is only home to about half of the population. East Antarctica encompasses everything beyond Union and Hondo as detailed earlier, including the capital city of Nanji, which sits exactly atop the South Pole. This region is much more geographically and climatically diverse. The East Antarctic coasts are no less lush and verdant than West Antarctica, and they are home to the region's cities. The forests continue, though drier and more sparse, into the vast East Antarctic interior. Here lie Antarctica's most spectacular mountain ranges, including the towering eastern arm of the Transantarctic Mountains, the Maud Mountains, and the massive Argus Highlands, a maze of chill mountain valleys and ice-crowned peaks the size of a small country. Free from the ice after 14 million years, Lake Vostok and the city on its shore are nestled between two mountain ranges, and it is just one of countless lakes dotting the Antarctic continent. The Eastern coasts have a climate similar to that of West Antarctica. In the interior, most summer days are between 60 and 75 degrees, but occasional heat waves can raise temperatures to almost ninety. In winter, meanwhile, zero degrees is the norm, and vicious cold waves can push temperatures down by dozens more.

Without a doubt, the most well-known residents of Antarctica are the king penguins. Small, flightless, tuxedoed, and supremely adorable, these little denizens look somewhat similar to emperor penguins; however, they are smaller and slimmer, and their highlights are orange, instead of yellow and pink. They were once confined to Antarctica's ice-free, outlying islands. As Antarctica's ice sheets melted, the natural habitats of Antarctica's native penguin species, such as emperor penguins, were irreversibly destroyed, and nothing could be done to save them from extinction. However, king penguins were perfectly suited to the new continent, as they and most of their food sources (including lanternfish and various other fish and squid species) did not rely on ice to survive. Today, they are found in great numbers near bodies of water, where their prey thrive, and in cities, where their human friends keep plenty of food on hand for them.

Antarctica's austral forest consists of trees of the species Pinus cembra. These trees are notable for their elegant, full-bodied shape and deep, rich green color, and they are part of the reason why the Antarctic austral forest is considered by many to be the most beautiful place in all the world. They are easily capable of surviving even the most bitterly cold Antarctic winters, and are extremely resistant to high winds and fungal diseases. Inside their large, blue-gray pinecones are edible seeds - pine nuts - which are often added to Antarctic dishes, or eaten as a snack. They are also good for growing bonsai trees, which, as a result, have become a common home decoration in Antarctica.

Antarctica is set apart from the rest of the world by its unusual patterns of night and day. The sun and moon never venture very far above or below the horizon, and sunrises and sunsets can last for extraordinary lengths of time. At the height of summer, most of the continent is perpetually bathed in sunlight, with very little of the continent seeing darkness at any time of day. Conversely, in the dead of winter, very little of Antarctica ever sees the sun at all; most of the continent is instead lit by the moon, the stars, and the Aurora Australis. During the winter, the entire continent is blanketed in snow, and none of it melts until spring. Antarcticans live in harmony with their continent's unique rhythm in ways that the rest of the world considers quite fascinating and unexpected.